okonjoiweala27_GIUSEPPE CACACEAFP via Getty Images_WTO13ministerialconference Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

WTO Reform Is Everyone’s Responsibility

The World Trade Organization’s most recent ministerial conference concluded with a few positive outcomes demonstrating that meaningful change is possible, though there were some disappointments. A successful agenda of reforms will require more members – particularly emerging markets and developing economies – to take the lead.

GENEVA – Taking place in challenging and uncertain times, the World Trade Organization’s 13th Ministerial Conference in Abu Dhabi produced mixed results: a few successes, but also some disappointments. By contrast, the previous ministerial conference, held in June 2022, concluded with the adoption of numerous multilateral agreements and decisions, giving the WTO a temporary reprieve from its critics. Now the critics are back.

Criticism is not necessarily a bad thing; it should prompt reflection on why the WTO was created in the first place, how it has benefited its members, both rich and poor, and what impact it might have in the future. But criticism is helpful only if it accounts for the organization’s complexity, which was deepened by the dynamics of the Abu Dhabi meeting. In addition to the usual North-South challenges, the negotiations exposed emerging South-South tensions on certain issues. The differences among developing countries further complicate the WTO’s consensual approach to decision-making.

The new tensions were most evident in the areas of digital commerce and agriculture. WTO members of the African, Caribbean, and Pacific group, totaling 62 countries, aligned with developed countries and some emerging markets in supporting the extension of the moratorium on e-commerce tariffs for electronic transmissions. Others, including Indonesia, India, and South Africa, opposed extending the moratorium, citing revenue losses for their governments and the unfair advantages they believe the moratorium confers on Big Tech companies.